THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY
Directed by Julian Schnabel
"Besides my left eye, there are only two things that aren't paralyzed: my imagination and my memory."- Jean-Dominique Bauby
And so goes one of the more memorable lines from Julian Schnabel's revolutionary new film The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. Based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the film tells the story of one man's tragic fall and his courageous fight to live, even through the damnedest conditions.
Editor for Elle fashion magazine, Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) was a man of great excess and minor celebrity, but his flight to the top of the fashion world is devastatingly stilted by a massive stroke which causes his entire body to be paralyzed--a condition his doctor refers to as "locked-in syndrome". The only functioning part of his body is his left eye. He sees his doctors, his therapists, and his visitors, but his ability to communicate with them has gone. He has dreams that he is locked inside of a diving bell, drifting at the bottom of the ocean, and when he wakes, his fate is not much different.
After wakes of bitterness and self-pity, Bauby decides to work with his speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) in devising a form of communication. He is able to learn a way of dictating letters by blinking his one functional eye, and through that slow process, Bauby is able to create phrases and connect with the outside world. He even decides to dictate his own autobiography based mostly on his experiences in "locked-in syndrome".
A majority of the film is seen through the point-of-view of Bauby himself (a scene showing his infected right eye getting stitched is particularly difficult to watch), and his isolation is very well documented. The character of Bauby, though, is not a depressing one, but is in fact very life-affirming. He refuses to be locked in, and consistently takes journeys far all over the world, to the best restaurants in France, and frequently to moments in his past. He recalls visits to his aging, senile father (the legendary Max von Sydow) and a vacation he took with his mistress. He chooses life as apposed to prison.
Neither is Bauby shown in a complimentary light, but shown as a regular man. He cracks sarcastic jokes in his mind at the helplessness at which doctors debate his conditions, and frequently takes the opportunity to notice a woman's cleavage. Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), an ex-girlfriend and mother to three of his children, visits him frequently, despite the fact that he is no longer in love with her.
Everything in this film is excellent for many reasons. This film captures a lot of things that make movies magical: imagination, beauty, humor, poignancy, sadness, and all the while telling a powerful story of a man who overcomes his own capture. It's hard for anybody to contemplate what it would be like to be locked in their own bodies, but this film displays with such detail and skill, it is probably as close we will come with knowing. Julian Schnabel's work in this film is truly something to cherish. Known for his 2000 film Before Night Falls, Schnabel has the ability to create moments of true sincerity and heartbreak, and still has the focus to expand the minds of his viewers with his technique.
Filled to the brim with breathtaking music and sweeping camera work, this is probably the overall best-made film that has come out in 2007. Working closely with the autobiography by Bauby itself, the film is able to recreate the exact mental state of a man. This is a very hard feat to accomplish, particularly when you factor in the complexities of Bauby's personality. No other time in recent memory have I felt so close to a character in a film than I did while watching this film.
Though the film has many great supporting performances (particularly by von Sydow and Seigner), the film is dominated by the performance by Mathieu Amalric. Quite a prolific worker in French films, Amalric deserves just as much credit with creating the world of Bauby as Schnabel. His wonderful spirit in the scenes of his own memory, compared to watching him confined in paralysis is a piece of chameleon acting that is beyond difficult, yet Amalric does it with seeming ease.
In the end, Bauby certainly does not seem like the perfect man, but we hope that any one of us could have the same spirit as he did in that terrible shape. The movies are filled with films that insult our intelligence by showing us the stories of people that they feel like we should respect, whether or not they deserve it (American Gangster comes to mind). Few times does a story come around that is truly inspirational and exemplifies what bravery really is. Bravery is not authoritative and gun-toting. Bravery is the power to overcome any terrible circumstance, whether it's something you brought on yourself or not. The Diving Bell and The Butterfly tells the story of that kind of bravery.